Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Three Chamber Operas at the Aix Festival

Along with the celestial Mozart Requiem, a doomed Tosca and a gloriously witty Mahagonny the Aix Festival’s new artistic director Pierre Audi regaled us with three chamber operas — the premiere of a brilliant Les Mille Endormis, the technically playful Blank Out (on a turgid subject), and a heavy-duty Jakob Lenz.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera

When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale.

Handel’s Belshazzar at The Grange Festival

What a treat to see members of The Sixteen letting their hair down. This was no strait-laced post-concert knees-up, but a full on, drunken orgy at the court of the most hedonistic ruler in the Old Testament.

Don Giovanni in Paris

A brutalist Don Giovanni at the Palais Garnier, Belgian set designer Jan Versweyveld installed three huge, a vista raw cement towers that overwhelmed the Opéra Garnier’s Second Empire opulence. The eight principals faced off in a battle royale instigated by stage director Ivo van Hove. Conductor Philippe Jordan thrust the Mozart score into the depths of expressionistic conflict.

A riveting Rake’s Progress from Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival

Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century morality tale in eight paintings and with a pithy libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to Neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic ‘progress’ from blissful ignorance to Bedlam.

The Gardeners: a new opera by Robert Hugill

‘When war shall cease this lonely unknown spot,/ Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,/ And flowers will shine in this now barren plot/ And fame upon it through the years descend:/ But many a heart upon each simple cross/ Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss.’

Richard Jones's Boris Godunov returns to Covent Garden

There are never any real surprises with a Richard Jones production and Covent Garden’s Boris Godunov, first seen in 2016, is typical of Jones’s approach: it’s boxy, it’s ascetic, it’s over-bright, with minimalism turned a touch psychedelic in the visuals.

An enchanting Hansel and Gretel at Regent's Park Theatre

If you go out in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. And, it will be no picnic! For, deep in the broomstick forest that director Timothy Sheader and designer Peter McKintosh have planted on the revolving stage at Regent’s Park Theatre is a veritable Witches’ Training School.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Enkelejda Shkosa as Suzuki and Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San [Photo © ROH. Photographer Bill Cooper.
22 Mar 2015

Madame Butterfly, Royal Opera

Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.

Giacomo Puccini: Madame Butterfly

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Enkelejda Shkosa as Suzuki and Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San

Photos © ROH. Photographer Bill Cooper.

 

If Puccini’s aim was — in keeping with verismo ideology — to portray the grim reality of contemporary life then the story of Cio-Cio-San’s exploitation, abandonment and self-sacrifice must have seemed a fitting tale. John Luther Long’s eponymous short story — which since its 1904 publication has spawned many a Butterfly-derivation — was based on a real-life incident: here, then, was the opportunity for the composer to depict the catastrophic actualities of cultural and sexual exploitation amid human suffering, gritty pragmatism and stoic self-sacrifice in back-street Nagasaki.

However, Puccini was evidently more interested in verismo settings than its aesthetics and philosophies: perhaps the only ‘genuine’ verismo operas are Il Tabarro and Tosca, for even in La Bohème the emphasis is more on the captivating bohemian milieu than the sordid quotidian affairs of the common man and woman. The garrets of the nineteenth-century Quartier Latin may have posed as present-day normality but in fact they were just as remote and picturesque as the faraway harbour-shores of Nagasaki.

©BC20150317_Madama_Butterfly_RO_801 BRIAN JAGDE AS LIEUTENANT B.F. PINKERTON, KRISTINE OPOLAIS AS CIO-CIO-SAN (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER.pngBrian Jagde as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San

Thus, Madame Butterfly is less an exposure of racial, financial and sexual abuse than a tale of love, sacrifice and redemption — and one not so far from the ideals of German Romanticism. Puccini may have called Madame Butterfly a ‘tragedia giapponese’ but it is not Japanese in any naturalistic sense: indeed the French term Japonisme might be nearer to the mark, referring as it does to the mania for the East which followed the end of Japanese isolation from the West in 1854. In the pavilions of the world fairs held in Paris during the late-nineteenth century, the Occident discovered the Orient through displays of the latter’s art, plays and music — and it devoured what it saw.

This infatuation is thrillingly reflected in Christian Fenouillat’s subtle but penetrating set designs and the wildly glowing colours of Christophe Forey’s lighting scheme: Puccini’s orientalism is exotic mystery rather than naturalistic misery. So, Fenouillat presents us with a room whoseshoji screens decorously rise and slide to reveal glimpses of Nagasaki — a pale view of the hills — or an ornamental shūyū, the blue-pink mist which hazily bathes the ornamental garden making a fairy-tale of Butterfly’s entrance. These screens allow rays of yellow-green or orange light to slide across the set floor, emphasising the unfamiliar perspective of the world we view. It will not reveal all its secrets or admit interlopers: Kate Pinkerton appears first as a silhouette, ominous and alien, through the dividing screen. And, the flat backgrounds cut off figures and sakura trees at the edge of the frame; this is an asymmetrical world of juxtaposed angles, layers and colours. Japanese cherry blossom trees are traditionally associated with clouds, because of their weightless flowery mass, and when the ephemeral petals tumble to the floor at the end of Act 3, illumined by a ghostly moon-glow, the death of Butterfly’s airy dreams is painfully apparent.

All this beauty and symbolism might be mere superficial satisfaction for one’s sensibilities, if it were not for the dramatic insight and vocal distinction of Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais who truly appreciates, and communicates, that Butterfly’s tragedy is a personal one not a cultural one. Opolais may not convince as an ingénue or a teenage Geisha: she is too tall and her voice too sophisticated and knowingly mature to encapsulate the girlish immaturities of a giggling fifteen-year-old. But, her Butterfly is a ‘real’ woman of disturbing integrity and resolution, and this steely determination is gradually revealed by Opolais to be an unwavering willpower and honesty which will eventually destroy both herself and Pinkerton.

©BC20150317_Madama_Butterfly_RO_695 GABRIELE VIVIANI AS SHARPLESS (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER.pngGabriele Viviani as Sharpless

Opolais’s spinto glistens like gossamer thread but has an underlying strength; she sang with such seductive lyricism that, for once, one might empathise with Pinkerton’s infatuation. Her voice is not huge, though, and there were some places where it was overshadowed by the orchestral fabric; but, in the end-of-Act 1 love duet Opolais used a powerful chest voice to convey the shockingly deep passion which lays beneath her docile purity and the demure civilities of her culture.

In Act 2 she laid bare Butterfly’s emotional unpredictability: her haughty sulkiness when admonished or guided by Suzuki; her youthful excitability which irrepressibly bursts out, interrupting Sharpless’s reading of Pinkerton’s letter; her fiery anger when the US consul dares to suggest that she may never see Pinkerton again. In a pre-production interview in the Daily Telegraph Opolais said of the role: ‘Just to sing it with a good voice is not enough, it asks tears from your soul. I am very emotional on stage and the music is so tender that I suffer for real when I am singing it.’ This was nowhere more evident than in ‘Un bel dì’ where the wistful honesty of her singing totally explicitly and uncompromisingly revealed her despair.

Leiser and Caurier manage to keep their production on the right side of sentimentality, but here it was Opolais who imbued it with true tragic authority. It was a pity then that her final death throes were exaggerated and unconvincing: Butterfly’s destiny has been foreshadowed, for example in her prostrate figure at the close of Act 1, and once the ornate tantō has done its fatal work, one might have hoped for a less melodramatic physical collapse to convey Butterfly’s ultimately destructive passivity.

Opolais is well-partnered by Brian Jagde’s Pinkerton. The American tenor’s interpretation of the Yankee Lieutenant as an insensitive young buck whose crime is carelessness rather than malice is convincing, even if it doesn’t allow for much emotional range. Jadge’s tenor is bright and powerful, and although there were a few over-reaching rasps in Act 1, his aria, ‘Addio fiorito asil’, was deeply moving, full of shame and sorrow.

The rest of the cast were solid but somewhat overshadowed by Opolais’s intensity. Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa was a feisty Suzuki, strong and rich of voice, and Jeremy White’s white-faced Bonze cursed chillingly. Gabriele Viviani made a fairly bland impact as Sharpless, but Carlo Bosi’s Goro was wily and snakily persistent and the Italian tenor grabbed his dramatic moments.

The single performer who matched Opolais’s fearless commitment was conductor Nicola Luisottiwho drew incredible incisive playing from the pit, alternating searing, fervent climaxes — the instrumental introduction did not waste any time in setting out Luisotti’s intentions — with moments of pristine tenderness. Together with Opolais, Luisotti conveyed an essential truth: that Butterfly’s tragedy is not caused by external forces of pillage and corruption but derives from within, from her own misplaced love.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Cio-Cio-San, Kristine Opolais; Pinkerton, Brian Jagde; Sharpless, Gabriele Viviani; Goro, Carlo Bosi; Suzuki, Enkelejda Shkosa; Bonze, Jeremy White; Yamadori, Yuriy Yurchuk; Imperial Commissioner Samuel Dale Johnson; Kate Pinkerton, Anush Hovhannisyan; Conductor, Nicola Luisotti; Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier; Set designs, Christian Fenouillat; Costume designs, Agostino Cavalca; Lighting design, Christophe Forey; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Friday 20th March 2015.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):